Willimantic, Conn. – From May 27–July 3, Eastern Connecticut State University hosted a six-week research experience called the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP). SURP is a component of the Connecticut Health and Life Sciences Career Initiative, a three-year program of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education focused on preparing Connecticut’s workforce for the growing health and life sciences sector.
The initiative involves Eastern and six other Connecticut state colleges. Norwalk, Gateway, Middlesex, Capital and Manchester community colleges are developing and revising programs that prepare students to meet the workforce needs of the health and life sciences field. Charter Oak State College is providing prior learning assessments to ensure students get credit for military service and other learning, and Eastern is the host of SURP, the hands-on summer research component.
“This is the first exposure to health and life sciences for many of the students involved,” said Lesley Mara, project director of the initiative. “Prior to the program, many of them weren’t aware of the study or career opportunities in this field.”
The Connecticut Health and Life Sciences Career Initiative is funded by a $12.1 million Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Under the grant, being administered by Norwalk Community College, Eastern will host SURP again next summer.
“SURP has given students hands-on research experience and many opportunities for personal, career and academic development,” said Board of Regents President Gregory Gray. “The program will help our students be competitively positioned for health and life science careers in Connecticut.”
The initiative enrolls both traditional and nontraditional students, but focuses on veterans and un/underemployed workers. This summer, 20 students ages 18–50, mostly from community colleges, participated in SURP. “This is a once in a lifetime experience. I’m so happy I took advantage of it,” said Ze Bayati, a student from Gateway Community College. “By the end of the program, I found my passion for science. Now I know that biology is the right career path for me.”
Participants took one of two tracks — biosciences or physical health and epidemiology — and conducted research alongside Eastern faculty from various health and science departments. “SURP has been designed to allow students to explore a variety of research areas within their track,” said Polly Silva, Eastern’s curriculum and program coordinator for the initiative. “In addition to being introduced to the topic, they learn how to formulate research questions and what the practical applications are for that field.”
Research topics for biosciences included extraction of antimicrobial agents from plants; analyses of molecular stem and progenitor cells; and laser-scanning confocal microscopy. Topics for physical health and epidemiology included exercise testing protocols; the study and impact of nutrition and physical health on chronic disease; and the use of geographic information systems (GIS) to study the health of the community.
Research was conducted in Eastern’s state-of-the-art Science Building. “I chose to participate in SURP because I wanted to learn how to use various types of lab equipment,” said Precilia Dianzenza, a nursing student from Capital Community College, whose research focused on the antibacterial properties of the Black Iris flower.
SURP participants also took field trips to Connecticut Public Health Labs and the Hartford Hospital Simulation Lab. “My favorite experience was visiting the Simulation Center,” said Tim Ziembiec, health and exercise science major from Manchester Community College. “We got to see and test out the same technology that doctors and nurses use — I don’t think I would have ever had an opportunity like that if it wasn’t for SURP.”
Many students chose to live on Eastern’s campus during the program. “In addition to benefiting from the research experience, community college students had the opportunity to experience what it is like to live in a dorm,” said Mary Ann Affleck, dean of academic affairs at Capital Community College.
“Our hope is that this program will inspire students to pursue studies and careers in the health and life sciences field, and judging by their reactions, I think it has!” said Mara. “The access to equipment the students had and the quality and care of the faculty helped make SURP a great success.”
The Connecticut Health and Life Sciences Career Initiative also aligns with Eastern’s brand new Health Sciences major. Both of these programs are meant to address the rapid growth of the health and life sciences field over the coming years.